DW2Not long after the result was announced on Friday morning, Sky News had reduced the complexity of the referendum into a simple-to-read graphic with Scotland and London highlighted in yellow and the rest of the UK in blue. Although an accurate depiction of regional results, the graphic overstated the nature of Brexit’s support. It was simply not the case that all of England except the capital voted to leave the EU. Not only did every result include a sizable Remain vote, there were many places where Remain won a majority of support. Liverpool and Manchester both voted for Remain yet these yellow points in the sea of blue don’t fit the convenient ‘Island London’ narrative. So, for a while, Sky’s striking graphic persisted. As far as England was concerned, it became London vs the rest of the world.  A metropolitan elite vs denizens of the sticks. It was ‘us’ vs ‘them’.

The division is one that newspapers spent the weekend perpetuating. Most ran articles attempting to understand the mysterious ‘them’ who are the English working class. The problem I have is that I’m one of ‘them’ rather than one of ‘us’ and I don’t recognise the world described in these despatches from the front line. I was born and raised and live and work in the north, in one of those ‘blue’ communities that so shocked Westminster. I identify myself as working class, though I’m not entirely sure what that means. In education, interests, and beliefs I’m not exactly a representative sample but, in truth, there isn’t one working class but many. That’s the first thing to remember when reading the next Guardian field report of life among the northern tribes: not every one of us is an inner city single mother snorting food stamps and smoking crack.

Certainly, some stereotypes do prevail. There are plenty of the retired miners spending six nights a week playing bingo in their local Labour Club. There are plenty of white van driving men who fly the English flag and curse the day the Channel Tunnel opened. Yet take any row of terraced houses and you might find the amateur historian or photographer or the expert in stamps or the Russian ballet. The working class comprise the affluent and the impoverished; the educated and the under-qualified; the angry and the calm; the patriotic and nationalistic; and quite a few who are simply apolitical and indifferent.

It is certainly too easy to sneer and to dismiss working class voters as the ‘idiots’ who didn’t understand the issues and who, in their hatred of a right wing Tory government, ensured that there will be an even more right wing Tory government in the near future. It is also too easy to talk of working class bigotry when it was the decidedly middle class Katie Hopkins who made the nasty ‘finally looking after our own’ quip when congratulating Rochdale for voting Leave. Bigotry knows no class divide in the same way that a vote for Brexit was not always a vote for bigotry. Yet the media must also be cautious about patronising the working classes in the way of the Little Dorritt school of journalism. The problem of asking ‘what do they have to say’ is that use of ‘they’. It is a form of disconnect that reflects the degree to which regional debates are an adjunct to those that really form opinion. As Andrew Neil says during Daily Politics: ‘and now over the political news where you live…’ Going over to the regions means that the nation often overlooks the regions. Media opinion tends to reflect those within an hour’s drive of the news studios where the newspapers are reviewed nightly. And now, for a view of the day’s news: Stig Abel and Carole Malone… Iain Dale and Julia Hartley-Brewer. Is it any wonder if they tend to share the same outlook, express the same opinion, and confirm their own biases?

The result is a sense of isolation here in the north. Being socially and culturally adrift is hard to understand unless you are yourself adrift. It is not something we have chosen but something forced upon us by location. It comes down to some simple facts that affect day-to-day living. A few weeks ago, I found myself planning a trip to London. As a would-be cartoonist, I try to get to see the work of my favourite artists and I really wanted to see an exhibition of Martin Rowson’s cartoons in Lewisham. I searched the web for tickets but early morning trains from Manchester or Liverpool were in excess of £100 each, with those back similarly priced. Morning trains to the capital (and evening trains leaving London) are in high demand but trains travelling the other way run relatively empty and cheap. It means that travelling into London for the day is prohibitively expensive yet travelling out of London for the day relatively cheap. I would have to travel into London late in the day and travel home in the morning but that would require one or two nights of accommodation. A day out turns into a small holiday. The result: I didn’t go. It would have been cheaper to buy Rowson’s originals and have them shipped up to me.

This might seem like a trivial detail but life is made up of trivial details and trivial details often shape our perceptions. It means the North feels distinctly separate to London where £81.87 is spent per head of population on arts funding. The rest of the country receives £19.80 per head. Here in my corner of the North West, the funding is considerably less. Warrington was recently described as the ‘worst place for culture’ by the Royal Society of Arts yet we locals consider Warrington a cultural oasis compared to our even more immediate provision.

Now, of course, I’m framing this sense of isolation in my own terms. Not everybody up here is a frustrated cartoonist and I was also untypical in that I voted for Remain. Yet that doesn’t mean that I don’t understand why the area went so strongly blue. Politicians for a long time have tended to speak down to us, speak over us, or simply take us for granted. At the last election, the Tories put up a candidate who lived in Tring in Hertfordshire, 142 miles away. Labour, for their part, routinely drop their favourites into these safe seats. When Shaun Woodward defected from the Tories, he soon turned up in the neighbouring seat of St Helens South despite having no connection with the town. Meanwhile, our current MP here in St Helens North speaks with a strong Northern Irish accent and, though I have nothing against Conor McGinn MP, it does mean that we don’t even hear our own distinctive accent representing us in the House of Commons. That, surely, means something.

The examples are too many to list but one more to make my point. When The City of London declared last Friday morning, the BBC went live to the count as David Dimbleby explained that it was the smallest of the areas to vote, containing only 4,399 people. By the time it came for Liverpool to announce, there was no camera to record a decision made by 203,554 people. Trivial? Perhaps. But, again, when this happens all the time, do you ever wonder why we feel forgotten?

Nowhere is this disconnect more relevant than in terms of the Labour Party. It’s often said that these are Labour’s heartlands yet nobody, in truth, really knows what that means. The language of wealth distribution was powerful but the language of immigration is now stronger. There is still a popular commitment to the NHS and, to a lesser extent, renationalisation, but it would be foolish to think that most voters have a soft stance on social issues. It might upset metropolitan liberals but many northern working class voters would not have liked being lectured to on Europe by Eddie Izzard in a pink beret and with his finger nails painted black. Yes that might sound bigoted, backward, and even offensive but I offer it as a simple fact. Small town northern England is nothing like London and it is a mistake to think otherwise. It is that very mistake that is now causing the Labour Party to haemorrhage votes to UKIP.

The solution would involve such profound changes to the way we perceive our nation that it’s hard to imagine how we could change. The habit of London elites is to throw money to the regions with a dismissive ‘here, have a new arts centre on us’ attitude. Yet that does not change the political reality. When people complain about life in Liverpool, Wigan, Bury, Rochdale, or Leeds, too many in the south sniff disdainfully or resort to insults that, directed towards any other minority, would not be allowed. Clichés are allowed to persist about Liverpudlians being ‘self-pitiful’ or (the classic insults that are rarely censured) ‘light fingered’ or ‘scroungers’. Northern accents are treated as though they’d somehow indicative of mental processes slower than an Aardman animation. Johnny Vegas is the loud boorish symbol of northern masculinity and films like ‘The Brothers Grimsby’ make the working classes objects of ridicule instead of understanding.

If you wonder why the north voted the way it voted, perhaps it would better to look not to the north but to the south and then wonder instead if they have ever really thought to listen.

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7 Comments on "Did they ever really think to listen?"

  1. David, I’m afraid I’ve jumped the gun, your piece wasn’t up and my post would sit much better here than in Colin Baziers. The idea of introducing a minimum residency period for prospective MP’s is growing on me by the minute. Would you fancy helping to put up a petition and promote it as I stopped tweeting years ago and have no network to get it publicised. I don’t think for one moment they would introduce it as it would in effect end the age of the professional politician but I would like to hear them debate it and give their reasons for not doing so.

    • No problem, Rob. What do you have planned? Can you email me and I’ll have a think and see if there’s anything I can do to help you.

      • Will do, it’s the wording I’m pondering. It’s only 80 characters for the tagline and then 300 for the background which is a bit too succinct for a babbler like me. From there it’s just a case of getting a few people with followers to tweet it in the hope it will catch on. There are about 2500 petitions on there with less than 10,000 votes so if I just post it, it will disappear.

  2. The vote uncovered the truths all sides in politics for their own purposes and reasons have tried to hide, nullify, discourage and so on. Some of this is evil, some of it isn’t.

    There are lots of fantasies broken. Labour – as you cited is totally broken. The Tories turn England Blue, on the map – but with pockets of red that hate them.

    The Tories and the EU have largely failed in creating jobs and prosperity. And people all over operate on basis of self interest. So those who do well from the pro EU UK support it, and those being burned hate it. And those being burned often are working or middle class who don’t have the wealth to move out of areas, get school places, or doctors appointments yadda yadda yadda.

    Its probably *still* the core problem we have that – we’re not able to handle the weight of migration taking place – pre or post exit, and no one has a viable plan – because there isn’t a plan anyone can make at these levels (@330,000+ per year rising).

    Right now, all I see is people on both sides butchering each other, and all the rest still without actually absorbing the problem. And like a drug addict, no treatment can work until this happens. I think I am right in that we are over 400 people per square Km in England, and that’s not truly reflecting the pressure in the places with real squeeze taking place.

    It seems both sides after all the hubris have reached a conclusion. Trade must continue, people will need to move, – sadly that still persists in ignoring a reality that a breakpoint was reached. If people believe that you can do another 330,000 next year, and the same after, and the same after, I ponder if anyone sane is left. Both sides are pouring fuel on a fire neither can control.

    The free movement idea in the EU can only work if you have relative stability and job growth. Otherwise people flood the places that do. As Shengen got broken too, you don’t just have free movement of EU people, but more beyond.

    If a rerun occurred tomorrow – I’d still be voting leave. I have seen nothing on the EU or European side comprehend their failure to make a deal with Cameron, nor any proper consideration of the issue. They are still peddling that free movement has to come with market access. Someone needs to answer, no, start creating jobs, now. We’re not your overflow valve for endless broken EU failure. We can’t take an endless flood because you got things so wrong. *shruug*.

    • Adam, I have to say that migration was not top of the list of my concerns when I voted leave as I was fully aware that even if migration from the EU was reduced or halted altogether the numbers of non EU migrants would simply rise to take their place. We have always had control over non EU migration and no effort has been made to control it, it would be naive to expect any change in that attitude from the mainstream politicians. For my part I would much rather have a EU migrant who shares the same basic culture and values than perhaps someone from the RoW who doesn’t. That of course does present a problem going forward as many did vote on the basis of migration. While a Norway type agreement would satisfy just enough people that if a referendum was called to ratify it (it won’t be of course) it would pass, it would still leave a great many people feeling betrayed which could only play well for UKIP. In that case surely 25% of the vote in a general election wouldn’t be beyond them, perhaps more, what that would translate to in seats, who knows. If we can sign an association agreement that leaves us free to set our own trading relationship with the rest of the world and restores the primacy of the UK courts then I could just about stomach that myself, regardless of free movement. Indeed I think in a decades time people will be asking why we didn’t take such action sooner given the obvious business opportunities this provides. What has been shown in the past few days however is that a number of our so called “friends and allies” in the “European family of nations” are nothing of the sort, they won’t make negotiations easy even if it is the pragmatic course, as a result I am very glad that we are no longer going to be politically bound to them in the same fashion anymore.

  3. Alan R Cooper | 29th June 2016 at 1:33 pm | Reply

    Very insightfull piece, Mr. Waywell. It is in harmony with how we in rural Texas and the midwest feel towards our “betters” in Washington, New York, the national media, and to a lesser extent, our own state’s Austin. We are known colloquially and disdainfully as “flyover country”, and even those of us who have not supported Donald Trump understand his appeal.

    • Thank you Alan. Never occurred to me that this might be the same in the US. I’ve always assumed that you have enough of a local ‘world’ to compensate for the lack of a national presence. Here in the UK, regional news and newspapers tend to report stories such as ‘roof blows off garage’ and ‘chimney collapses mildly scuffing dog’. I would have thought local politics in Texas are big enough to be of interest in themselves. I suppose we all want to feel part of our national debates but the US at least has size as an excuse. We haven’t. We just have the general indifference of our elite.

      Anyway, thanks again for the comment. Really appreciated.

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